December 12, 2008: Ron Carey, a former UPS driver and Teamster president who set the standard for union leaders for courage and honesty and transformed the leadership of our union died yesterday at age 72.
Carey passed away at New York City Queens Hospital.
Carey toppled mob rule in the Teamsters, became the International Union’s first democratically elected General President and used his influence to change the leadership and direction of the AFL-CIO. In 1997, he led a 15-day strike against United Parcel Service—winning the labor movement’s biggest victory in a generation.
Carey resigned from office in November 1997 to fight allegations that he was involved in an improper scheme to use union funds to finance his reelection campaign. Carey was vindicated of this charge by a jury in federal court in 2001 which found that Carey had no knowledge of, or role in, the scheme.
“Ron Carey was the nation’s most charismatic and successful labor leader as the Twentieth Century was coming to an end. He will be remembered as a major figure in American labor history on the basis of just two of his accomplishments: In 1991—running as a reformer with the backing of Teamsters for a Democratic Union, he was elected general president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. In 1997, he led the successful 15-day strike against the giant United Parcel Service, the biggest victory organized labor had experienced in at least three decades,” said Ken Crowe, the author of Collision: How the Rank and File Took Back the Teamsters and The Vindication of Ron Carey. As a labor journalist at Newsday, Crowe covered Carey for more than 20 years from 1976, when he was president of Queens-based Teamsters Local 804.
Ronald Robert Carey was born on March 22, 1936 in New York City. He became a Marine shortly after high school and served from 1953 to 1955 and joined the Teamsters Union in 1956. Carey worked as a package car driver for United Parcel Service, a company that would become his lifelong adversary.
Carey first challenged mob rule and corrupt leadership in the Teamsters when in 1967 at the age of 32 he ran for president of Local 804 in New York and won an upset victory against an incumbent who had been dipping his hand into the union treasury. UPS management tried to blackmail Carey into withdrawing from the campaign—but their effort backfired when he taped the threats and played them for members to hear.
For more than two decades, Carey ran a local renowned within the Teamsters for leading strikes and winning record pension improvements—during an era when the national Teamsters Union was dominated by organized crime figures.
When in 1989 members of Teamsters for a Democratic Union finally won a 15-year fight for the right of rank-and-file members to vote on the top officers of the national union, Carey ignored death threats and led a successful reform slate against two old guard candidates steeped in corrupt traditions established under Jimmy Hoffa.
Carey Transforms the Teamsters
Carey took office as the first Teamster General President elected by the membership in 1992 and never forgot his roots as a second-generation UPS driver from Queens. He sold the union’s private jets and limos, cut his own salary by 33% percent, eliminated almost all the multiple salaries paid to union officials, and removed dozens of leaders of local unions where corruption had taken root.
Shifting the union’s resources to campaigns to win gains for working people, Carey led an unprecedented one-day walkout at UPS in 1994 when the company attempted to unilaterally increase package weight limits from 70 to 150 pounds without adequate steps to protect drivers’ health and safety. Old guard local leaders, by then united behind Hoffa’s son, urged members not to support the walkout—just as they attempted to undermine nearly every reform and initiative that Carey undertook while president.
Carey used his influence as head of North America’s most powerful union to transform the direction of the entire labor movement. In 1995, he was the most important supporter of a move to revitalize the tired AFL-CIO. Carey cast the decisive vote in electing John Sweeney and the New Voice Slate in the first-ever contested election for the labor federation’s top leadership.
In 1996, Carey won reelection against James P. Hoffa, the son of Jimmy Hoffa.
In August, 1997, Carey led a two-week national strike by 200,000 workers at UPS that captured the hearts of American workers tired of corporate greed, the growing wealth gap, and the shift to part-time, temporary, or contracted out “throwaway” jobs with low wages and few benefits. Labor’s biggest victory in a generation resulted in historic gains including a commitment by UPS to create 10,000 full-time jobs with full benefits by combining 20,000 low-wage part-time jobs, won major pension improvements, and defeated company demands to take control of workers pensions.
Charges and Vindication
On August 22, 1997, days after the strike victory, federal overseers moved to overturn Carey’s 1996 reelection, charging that an elaborate secret scheme had used union funds to enrich a few outside political consultants who controlled Carey’s campaign. Carey denied that he had known or approved of any such scheme.
Within a month, the consultants, led by campaign manager Jere Nash, plead guilty to embezzling union funds and other charges. Nash potentially faced years in prison, unless he could implicate Ron Carey in return for no prison time.
Federal overseers then removed Carey not only from office and from running in the election rerun but from any participation in the union for the rest of his life, based on Nash’s claim that the illegal scheme that put thousands of dollars in his own pocket was approved by Carey in a 15-second phone call for which there was no corroborating evidence to show it ever took place.
On Oct. 12, 2001, Carey’s claim that he did not know or approve of the scheme was upheld by a jury in federal court in New York, yet federal overseers never lifted the ban on his participation in his union.
Carey was removed and Hoffa became president in 1999. Since that time, the compensation of top Teamster officials has skyrocketed, while hundreds of thousands of members have been hit with pension and healthcare cuts. Former Federal Prosecutor Ed Stier, who was hired by Hoffa help root out Teamster corruption, resigned in 2004, accusing Hoffa of allowing organized crime and corruption back into the Teamsters. The battle to bring rank-and-file power to the Teamsters, Carey’s life-long goal, goes forward at the grassroots level.
“Ron Carey knew that it was time to change the way unions operated, to create strategies that could beat corporate greed by empowering rank-and-file workers and involving their families in the labor movement,” said Tim Sylvester, a UPS Teamster and member of New York Local 804. “Ron was a threat to corporate America and to old guard Teamster officials who feared him because he threatened their personal bottom line and made them look impotent in comparison.”
Ron Carey is survived by his wife of fifty years, Barbara Carey; their five children, Daniel Carey, Ronald Carey, Sandra Perrone, Pamela Casabarro, and Barbara Marchese; and 13 grandchildren.
Click here to read remembrances of Ron Carey by Teamsters who knew and worked with him.
Click here to watch the video UPS: America's Victory.
Click here to watch Ron Carey on the 2008 UPS Contract.
Click here to read The Vindication of Ron Carey by Ken Crowe, a labor journalist who covered Ron Carey for 20 years as a reporter for Newsday.